Entry begun on Wednesday, December 28, 10:45 pm
I had expected the previous entry to be the last one I would write or post in 2016. But just as with Ishmael in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, “those stage managers, the Fates,” have somehow intervened. It was actually the invitation to see a play—the Lookingglass Theatre production of Moby Dick from Chicago, at the Arena Stage in Washington DC—that prompted my decision to make a quick visit to the East Coast soon after posting final grades for my Fall Semester courses. My former NKU colleague Tom Zaniello, now living in Washington, had invited me to come to see this production as soon as he heard about it earlier this year, and he met me at National Airport when I arrived in the early afternoon on Monday, December 19. By then, we had planned three jamb-packed days before I would fly back to Cincinnati on Friday morning. The beautiful sunset when Tom picked me up from the East Wing of the National Gallery later on Monday afternoon heralded the glorious weather we would enjoy the rest of the week.
The invitation to see the Moby-Dick play had prompted this visit to DC, but the book I am writing on Frederick Douglass and Cincinnati drove its agenda. Ever since I learned that Gilbert Stuart’s 1809 Boston portraits of the parents of Sarah Otis Ernst, the Cincinnati heroine of my Douglass book, were now at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Virginia, I had hoped to make a visit there. Tom told me this would be an easy day trip from DC, so I made an appointment to see those paintings on the Tuesday of my visit. Tom, in the meantime, arranged with his friend Bob Grogg, who had worked for the National Park Service at Harper’s Ferry, to meet us in that historic town on Tuesday morning on our way to Winchester. I had never been to Harper’s Ferry. The closest I had thus far come to it was reading Herman Melville’s tribute to John Brown in his poem “The Portent (1859),” which begins with these haunting lines: “Hanging from the beam, / Slowly swaying (such the law), / Gaunt the shadow on your green, / Shenandoah!” No such portents as yet haunted us as Tom, his wife Fran, and I got our first glimpse of Harper’s Ferry from the right side of Tom’s Suburu as he drove us over a downstream bridge from that hillside town.
The air was cloudless but subfreezing on this shivery morning. Thronged with tourists in the summer, the town itself was nearly empty, ourselves and stark shadows our only companions. Bob and his wife Ann were ideal guides to Harper’s Ferry and its history, and what we learned from them was supplemented by excellent displays and videos in buildings to which we were the only visitors. The most moving spots, for me, were the Fire House in which John Brown and his associates had been captured, and the confluence of the two rivers which shaped the topography, the economy, and the strategic importance of this 19th century town. I loved the downstream prospect from the point where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet, looking straight down to the bridge we had crossed earlier in the morning. Bob pointed out how the Chesapeake and Ohio canal and its tow path had been tucked in between the railroad tracks and the river’s edge beneath the rugged mountain wall beyond the rusty bridge, and I was interested in the information about the “Race to Ohio” in the historical text on our side of the river. I had been aware for some time of commercial importance to Cincinnati when the Baltimore and Ohio railroad reached the rail lines of Ohio in the early 1850s, but until now I had no idea of where it had cut through the Alleghenies to get there.
One of the most interesting objects we saw in a Harper’s Ferry museum was a “Political Chart of the United States” created in Springfield, Ohio, in 1856 as part of the campaign to elect John Fremont as the Republican Party’s first-ever nominee for President of the United States. The demographic information mobilized for this chart is strategically deployed to show how a small number of slaveholders in the South still held a chokehold over the politics and economy of the North. The Republicans lost the national election that year, but they made enormous strides toward becoming the party that would elect Lincoln in 1860 and then, inspired in part by John Brown’s martyrdom at Harper’s Ferry, win the Civil War.
Bob and Ann Grogg live in a beautiful 18th-century farmhouse on the way from Harper’s Ferry to Winchester, so they treated us to a lovely lunch on our way to the Shenandoah museum. Before leaving Harper’s Ferry we visited the historic graveyard overlooking the confluence of the two rivers where three states meet.
I have been eager to see Gilbert Stuart’s paintings of Sarah Otis Ernst’s parents, now in Winchester, Virginia, because during four years of intense research in Cincinnati I have found no image of Sarah herself. At first my wish to see these paintings at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley appeared doomed. I learned shortly before our visit that these two paintings had recently been removed from the galleries and returned to storage. Moreover, the curator of the museum was to be absent on Tuesday, the only day we could visit. Our day was saved by Nancy Huth, the Museum’s Deputy Director of Arts and Education. I had known Nancy when she was Education Director of the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati. But I had not known until now that the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley was the one at which she had recently taken a new job. Nancy arranged for me to see the two Gilbert Stuart portraits in storage. She also shared some of the research she had recently done on Sarah Ernst’s parents, George Alexander Otis and Lucinda Smith. I was particularly interested in Sarah’s mother’s portrait because it was completed in 1809, the year Sarah herself was born. Communing with Gilbert Stuart’s painted image of Sarah’s mother in the storage room of the Shenandoah Valley Museum may be the closest I ever come to knowing what Sarah Otis Ernst looked like, and how it may have felt to be in her presence.
The Zaniellos and I had greatly enjoyed our day trip to Harper Ferry and Winchester on Tuesday, but Wednesday was even better. This was another double-header, our visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the daytime followed by the Lookingglass Moby Dick in the evening. I had wanted to visit the new African American Museum ever since reading Vincent Cunningham preview of its contents in the August 29 issue of The New Yorker. I loved the concept of the five-story ascent beginning in the underground bedrock in the origins of African enslavement and the Middle Passage before moving up through American enslavement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement into the light of day as one was finally prepared, mentally, emotionally, and imaginatively, for the extraordinary release of African American talent and expertise to be experienced in the Community and Culture Galleries high above ground level. I had also been intrigued by Cunningham’s emphasis on the soon-to-be-installed fine art gallery on the fourth floor as a place where “you could go from Robert Duncanson to Carrie May Weems.” Robert Duncanson has become increasingly important in my work on Cincinnati antislavery, so I was curious to see how his paintings would look in the context of this new museum. By the time I visited the Zaniellos in mid-December, there were no tickets available to visit the Museum until March. Fortunately, Tom had gotten our tickets well in advance.
Our tickets were for the 10 am opening, so we missed some of the crowd that flowed through the Museum the rest of the day. Even so, we were three among a multitude as we waited for the elevator to take us down to the lowest level of the history galleries. I was struck by the strong, yet subtle range of anticipation and coloration in our collective faces. I was also struck by the size and placement of the image of Frederick Douglass among the photo reproductions that framed the elevator. Here we see the stern and fully mature Frederick Douglass—in the englargment of a copy print from a lost daguerreotype or ambrotype c. 1858. Considerably smaller, two levels below him, is a photo of Abraham Lincoln, still with room to grow, as the Republican candidate for President in August 1860.
Since I have been thinking hard about Douglass for many years, and teaching him with great pleasure to a class of eighteen graduate students during the recently concluded semester, I was fascinated to see what role he might play during my ascent from the lowest level of the historical gallery up toward the ground level (where, more emotionally than physically exhausted, I slowly consumed a dish of Creole gumbo in the Sweet Home Café before ascending to the more contemporary Community and Culture Galleries). I was pleased to see Douglass richly represented all the way through, from a copy of his 1845 Narrative near an enlargement of the youthful photo that had been used as its frontispiece, on to full folio pages from both his North Star paper and Frederick Douglass’s Paper, and up through to the conclusion of the Civil War (at the beginning of which he had severely criticized President Lincoln and his policies before the friendship developed in which they worked together to end the war). One of the most touching items for me in the entire Museum was a photograph of Douglass after the Civil War accompanied by a cane with hand-carved illustrations from his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
As much as I had been intrigued by Cunningham’s preview of the African American Museum in The New Yorker in late August, I enjoyed even more the review of the Museum that Wesley Morris published in The New York Times on Monday of this week, December 26. Morris, too, was entranced by the “endless hues of skin” among “the faces of the hundreds of people waiting with you” for the elevator down into the historical galleries. He, too, was “devastated” moving through the Middle Passage, especially by the “registry-like wall of ships” that had transported the enslaved Africans, their “dates of disembarkation” followed by the number of slaves on board and the “the number of survivors.” (I had noted one ship in which only 82 of more than 400 passengers had survived.). Morris had also been deeply struck (as so many of us were) by the statue of Thomas Jefferson behind which are arranged “rows and rows of bricks painted with the names of some of his slaves.” Just is Jefferson is shadowed by bricks representing his own slaves in the museum Morris calls “the Blacksonian,” so is Abraham Lincoln “bound” to Frederick Douglass. “Lincoln is not a hero at the Blacksonian. He’s a man with a nagging mandate from Douglass to do the right thing. He’s another brick in the wall.”
One of the most hotly contested issues with regard to the landscapes that African American artist Robert Duncanson painted in Cincinnati during the 1850s is whether or not they express any “double consciousness” on the painter’s part of being a non-white painter in a white-dominated culture. For this reason I was interested to see that Vinson Cunningham in late August considered Duncanson’s “stately” The Garden of Eden, “painted thirteen years before emancipation,” to be “a paradise, leafy and mountainous but also unsettlingly dark. The figures of Adam and Eve are distant and barely distinguishable from the wilderness beyond them. The painting conveys a post-Fall American, tinged with menace, in which sin and grace manage a dissonant coexistence.” I was happy to learn from Cunningham’s essay that Tuliza Fleming (whom I had recruited to judge a Freedom Studies art contest for NKU students a decade ago) was a curator for the fine art gallery in the new African American Museum. I contacted her in advance of my trip and we made an appointment to see The Garden of Eden together (along with a second Duncanson on display) on the afternoon of my visit. When I got back from Winchester the day before, she called to say something had come up that would prevent her from meeting me the next day, so I hope to see these two paintings with her on a future visit.
I did not myself find The Garden of Eden as “menacing” as Cunningham had, but I was deeply intrigued by what kind of latent symbolism Duncanson’s Cincinnati contemporaries might have seen in his second painting on display, Robbing the Eagle’s Nest. This dramatic landscape is signed and dated 1856. That is the year in which Margaret Garner had killed her infant daughter in Cincinnati in January to save her from being returned to slavery in northern Kentucky—from which the entire Garner family had escaped the night before as fugitives over the frozen Ohio River. Garner had murdered her child after being hunted down by Archibald Gaines, the “master” from whom she had fled, Gaines accompanied by a federal marshal who had authority to return Garner and her family to Gaines under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
Kentucky slaveholders like Gaines believed that Northern abolitionists who encouraged their slaves to escape were “robbing” their Southern “nests” of their rightful property. Northern abolitionists–who defended Margaret Garner in a highly publicized court case disputing Gaines’s claims under the Fugitive Slave Law—argued that the Garners had had been legally free as soon as they crossed into the free state of Ohio, and that a slaveholder who claimed them under an unconstitutional law was “robbing” the fugitives of freedom they had won by escaping into a free state. Whatever Duncanson may have consciously intended in creating and naming this painting, partisans on either side of the Garner case could have seen it as speaking the volatile issue of who was “robbing whom.” I have yet to see any commentary on this particular painting, and am eager to see how others interpret it. One thing is for sure: the man high up on the rock face robbing the eagle’s nest is in a very precarious position. What is not so clear is whether the huge eagle hovering above and beyond him intends to protect or avenge him (by the 1850s the eagle was firmly established as the federal bird).
The Zaniellos and I had taken diverging paths through the Museum. I had run out of steam (and memory on my iPhone camera) while exploring the exhilarating fourth and fifth floors in the afternoon. We all rested up before arriving at the amazing Arena Stage complex after dinner, where the Lookingglass Moby Dick was performed in the lowermost of its three theaters (the title of the Lookingglass play, unlike that of Melville’s novel, has no hyphen). As soon as we saw the set, we knew this would indeed be a physical, muscular, acrobatic production. The first surprise was to hear the haunting, pitch-perfect, a capella singing of the three women who returned throughout the play in different guises as if to represent “those stage managers, the Fates.” We all three enjoyed the energy and verve of this production, but Fran spoke for us all in saying she had been much more deeply moved by the crescendos of pity, fear, and empathy we had experienced, two years earlier in Washington, at the Kennedy Center production of Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick opera. That is not to say that you need to amass the forces of an entire opera company in order to bring the deeper meanings and feelings of Moby-Dick to the stage—as anyone who has experienced Rinde Eckert’s two-person chamber opera And God Created Great Whales can attest.
In my early planning for this trip to Washington DC, I had expected to make a return visit to Frederick Douglass’s magnificent Cedar Hill home overlooking the city from its hilltop perch in Anacostia. The National Park Service in its stewardship of this home has preserved most of the artworks that graced its walls at the time of Douglass’s death in 1895, and there are several of those surviving artworks (some whose artists are currently unknown) about which I wish to learn much more. My larger priority, however, on this visit was to learn more about the mailing book for Frederick Douglass’s Paper in the 1850s from which curator Kamal McClarin had sent me scans of the pages recording the names of persons to whom the paper had been sent in Ohio. These scans were very helpful, but they continued numerical notations I had not been able to interpret. I knew that I would need to examine the entire, actual book in order to interpret these correctly–and there were other states in which it would be help for me to know to whom the paper had been sent. I had hoped Kamal would be able to bring the book to Cedar Hill for me to examine there, but its fragile condition required that it remain in an offsite storage facility several miles away in Hyattsville, Maryland. That is where Tom dropped me off to begin my day at 10 am on Thursday.
I did not realize until I got to the storage facility in Maryland that Kamal and the Park Service had also preserved the “Mail Book,” equally fragile, for The North Star (which had become Frederick Douglass’s Paper when Douglass changed its name in 1851). I was very excited to discover who in the Cincinnati area had subscribed The North Star between its first issue in December 1847 and its last in June 1851. Examining the Cincinnati pages of The North Star allowed me to crack the code for Frederick Douglass’s Paper, for I soon realized that the number 52, for example, after Christian Donaldson, on page 147 for The North Star represented the 52 issues of the first volume of the paper, which was a weekly. Donaldson received the first 52 issues of the paper because he was the first “agent” for the paper (see far right column, below).
Another Cincinnati “agent,” and a very busy one, was Martin R. Delany, Douglass’s co-editor for The North Star in 1848. In May and June of that year, Delany published three consecutive “Letters from Cincinnati” in which he discussed the character, conditions, and institutions of African Americans in the city. He was also very busy getting new subscribers for The North Star—as you see just by glancing at the left column in the partial view of one “Mail Book” page below). Once I understood how the inclusive issues for each subscription were recorded for The North Star, I could see how all those numbers in the one-, two-, three-, four-, and five-hundreds in the “Mailing Book” for Frederick Douglass’s Paper represented the start and/or stop dates for each subscriber listed. Since issue numbers ran consecutively from the one paper to the other, it was easy to figure out, for example, three-year period represented by the numbers 187 and 369 after the name of Sarah Otis Ernst on the page reproduced above (Mrs. Andrew Ernst). The number 260 after the name of her friend W. H. Brisbane a few lines lower, his unpublished diary suggests, represents the issue with which he transferred his subscription to the Young Men’s Mercantile Library Association after he and his wife began running a boarding house, leaving him much less time to read at home. Needless to say, I spent all of Thursday afternoon examining and photographing these two books at the Maryland repository. My next trip to Cedar Hill itself will have to wait until a future visit.
The Zaniellos and I had a relaxed dinner on Thursday night at Anbar, a Balkan restaurant to which they had taken my wife Joan during a short visit earlier in the semester. Like Joan, I flew home the next morning on an 8:30 flight to Raleigh with a connection to Cincinnati. I expect this will be the last blog entry I post in 2016. As I share this entry, I feel tremendous gratitude to Americans such as John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Sarah Otis Ernst for creating our history and culture–and to Americans such Nancy Huth, Tuliza Fleming, and Kamal McClarin for preserving our common heritage in public spaces which enable us to discover ourselves in each other.